Seattle's 'niceness' problem

The city has a reputation for being nice, but many agree that's a myth. So, why the cold shoulder to newcomers? Here are a few possible reasons.
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The city has a reputation for being nice, but many agree that's a myth. So, why the cold shoulder to newcomers? Here are a few possible reasons.

As I've been giving readings and interviews around Puget Sound the last two months, a topic that frequently comes up is the subject of Seattle's "nice-ness," or lack of it. The subtitle of my book Pugetopolis promises, among other things, to tackle "The Myth of Seattle Nice," so you know where I stand.

At most readings I discuss an essay of mine from Seattle magazine on the topic and it gets a big, approving response, especially from transplants who seem delighted to have a Seattle native acknowledge that, despite our smiles, we can be a passive-agressive, cold-shouldered kind of place.

The audience frequently offers the corroborating evidence of miserable pot-luck experiences, failed attempts to get to know neighbors, and being foiled in getting new local acquaintances to socialize or have a cocktail. Steve Shay, a reporter for the West Seattle Herald, once wrote a short piece for his hometown Chicago Tribune about the phenomenon. He had a great word for it: Seattle "nice-olation."

I try to be supportive to newcomers during their immersion in the nice-olation tank. One pointer: If you're the kind of person who invites neighbors you've never met to a get-to-know you barbecue, well, it might help you to know we have a name for people who do things like that: They're called "stalkers."

If you want to get to know your neighbors, go slow, take some time. In 20 years of next-door living, you might finally have something to say to one another. No one likes superficial chat, right?

At any rate, I've been gathering theories from the audiences and elsewhere, about our social frigidity and here are some of the top speculations about why we're not so nice and sociable.

1) We're Misfits: This theory holds that folks who move to Seattle didn't fit in where they came from. In other words, they're part of the "loose nuts" that rolled to the West Coast. From fur trappers to computer geeks, we're just socially inept and we pass that on.

2) We're Not Boring: You'll love this one. We in the Seattle area are simply more interesting than other people and fully capable of being pleased with our own company. We're a big reading town, right? We don't need other people because we're just so damned fascinating. Of course, there's a term for people who spend too much time alone pleasuring themselves, but you get the idea.

3) Homestead Mentality: We're all a little stuck in the frontier days where we were once self-sufficient in our little wilderness log houses. Your organic pea patch makes you a Jeffersonian yeoman even though your cabin today is a bungalow in Freelard. You can take care of yourself!

4) Don't Kiss Us, We're Norwegian: Authors Tim Egan, Jonathan Raban and others have raised Seattle's ethnic roots as cause for diffidence: our so-called Scando-Asian reserve. It's literally in our DNA, the habits of our ancestors. Not to mention that many of our region's first institutions were founded by lonely Scotsmen who worked for the Hudson Bay Company. If we're quiet, dour, and reserved, blame it on grandpa.

5) Mellow Yellow: I think this idea was first proposed in Bellingham. We don't socialize because we're just so damned laid back. You know, a Lava lamp, some Hendrix, a little BC bud...this is slacker/stoner paradise.

6) It's the Weather: We'd be more friendly, but we're a) cocooning because it's dark and rainy out or b) we need to save our happy face for those one or two days a year we're not suffering from the debilitating depression caused by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

7) It's All Hooey: This last theory is that I am wrong, that in fact Seattle is the nicest place on earth, it's as plain as our ubiquitous smiles, gorgeous landscape, and determination to do the right thing always. We save the salmon, we ban the smokers, we vote for higher taxes, we'll even make your latte with 23 ingredients if that's how you want it. We're so nice, so damn nice, and you must be stupid not to notice it.

Of course, since disagreeing with my theory is a negative, non-inclusive act, it is, by definition, not nice. Which means the "It's Hooey" theory simply proves, rather than refutes, my thesis that Seattle Nice is a myth. So, thank you, naysayers, for proving me right.

As to the underlying causes of the not-nice phenomenon, we have at least six remaining theories that all look like winners to me.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.